Handel’s “Messiah”, A Prophetic Masterwork – Part 6: The Prophesied Sacrificial Lamb

4 April 2023

6.4 MINS

We come now in our study of the prophetic nature of Handel’s “Messiah” to the central part of the whole work, as well as the core theme of the Gospel. That is the sacrificial death of the Messiah on the cross. (The previous part can be found here.)

Recently, while looking online for more information on “Messiah”, I came across a site with the heading, “A Guide to the Original Source Texts for Handel’s Messiah”, which highlighted the libretto from within the scriptural sources. It also informed me that headings used in the document come from a wordbook published for a 1743 performance of “Messiah”.

For the portion I am covering here, which is the account of the Crucifixion, the heading reads, “The redemptive sacrifice, the scourging and the agony on the cross”.

You would think that a musical representation of the Crucifixion would use the Gospel accounts as the primary source. But Charles Jennens did not use even a single verse from those accounts. Instead, the bulk of his presentation of the event comes from Isaiah and Psalms.

But this is in line with the point I’ve been making all along. “Messiah” is a prophetic meditation on the events it portrays, and so here Jennens takes us back to those prophecies which the Messiah fulfilled on the cross.

But this section does actually begin with a verse from the Gospels, but from the very beginning of His ministry, where the choir sing the prophetic words of John the Baptist in John 1:29, “Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world”.

When you think about those words, you think of that revelation of Jesus as the Messiah, but John is prophesying the horrid truth which cut right through the Jewish belief that the Messiah was coming back as an all-conquering King to restore Israel. And so the music Handel set those words reflects the shock of that by sounding like a funeral dirge.


We then come to an aria which is the heart of this section, and which takes almost as long to perform as the rest of the Crucifixion account. The text is from two verses in Isaiah, 53:3 and 50:6:

“He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.

He gave His back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off His hair: He hid not His face from shame and spitting.”

On a musical note, as I’ve mentioned in previous articles, I prefer performances which seek to recreate what Handel had in mind, with the instrumentation he was familiar with, instead of modern interpretations. Also, it’s believed that it was the custom to play at a quicker tempo than is the norm today. I committed to using those in the accompanying videos wherever possible.

But in this case I go back to the recording in my own CD collection, which when it was recorded nearly 60 years ago, though it used modern instruments, was a pioneering effort in the field of historical performance practice. Yet it is not quicker than recordings with modern orchestras, but much slower. Yet for that I find the intensity gained from a more measured tempo is at times almost unbearable! This can only be achieved by a singer and conductor of the highest calibre!


Next, there are two consecutive pieces for the choir, taken from Isaiah 53:4-5:

“Surely He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows! He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him.

And with His stripes we are healed.”

Hear the emphasis Handel places on the word “Surely”.


Next comes another choral number, taken from Isaiah 53:6:

“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way. And the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”

Handel takes the two sentences of this verse and treats them in what seems to be a contradictory fashion. The first is a light, skipping rhythm, like sheep jumping across the fields. which seems to contradict the gravity of the fact that “we… have gone astray”, while the second, another slow, mournful dirge, while it comes as a swift shock, fits the sense of sorrow inherent in the text.

I found a good explanation of this:

“At first glance it may seem strange that Handel would take such a sobering concept that we all have gone astray “like sheep,” as described in Isaiah 53:6, and put it to music of an almost a giddy nature.  It’s almost as if Handel first musically describes the pleasures of “sin for a season,” after which the sinner finally comes face to face with the reality that there is a terrible price to pay for that sin, indeed a price justly ours to pay, but that it has just been laid on Jesus instead.”

While I was preparing this I thought of the word “cavorting”, which I think may have a particular relevance here. The dictionary defines “cavorting” as prancing or jumping around in a lively fashion, like lambs typically do. But it also has a connotation of sexual licentiousness. So perhaps Handel was also giving a veiled commentary on the loose morals of his time, outlined here:

“Sexual immorality was flaunted at court and in the theater and in literature. An invitation to a masked ball of the aristocracy was sent out with the promise of champagne, dice, music, or your neighbor’s spouse.”

There was widespread drunkenness amongst the lower classes, and gambling and drink had become a national disgrace. Many houses in London were turned into gin mills, producing “bathtub gin,” probably not with bathtubs, but homemade gin, in any case. Drunkenness was becoming a great problem amongst the English people.

The state government had established lotteries that were encouraging gambling. There were cruel and degrading sports, cock‑fighting, bull‑baiting. Hangings had become so frequent that Dr. Johnson quipped that he was afraid the Royal navy would run out of rope, and jails were over‑crowded. There was indifferentism to religion.”

And William Hogarth’s famous picture, titled “Gin Lane”, so graphically depicts this:


When you think about it, can you say that our present day culture, for all our achievements over the past three centuries, is any better? For that reason we should listen to “All We Like Sheep” as a personal meditation, not just a reflection on the general principle.


Next we come to two prophetic verses fulfilled at the Crucifixion: Psalms 22:7-8. The first line is sung by the tenor, and the second by the choir.

“All they that see Him laugh Him to scorn; they shoot out their lips, and shake their heads, saying:

‘He trusted in God that He would deliver Him; let Him deliver Him, if He delight in Him.’”

The fulfillment of this is found in Matthew 27:39-43 (NASB):

“And those passing by were speaking abusively to Him, shaking their heads, and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking Him and saying, “He saved others; He cannot save Himself! He is the King of Israel; let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe in Him. He has trusted in God; let God rescue Him now, if He takes pleasure in Him; for He said, ‘I am the Son of God.’””


The final piece in this section dealing with the Crucifixion sets Psalms 69:20 and Lamentations 1:12:

“Thy rebuke hath broken His heart: He is full of heaviness. He looked for some to have pity on Him, but there was no man, neither found He any to comfort him.

Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto His sorrow.”


This, of course, refers to the Father literally turning His back on the Son, His Messiah, and the prophesied “Lamb of God” at the beginning of Handel’s account, as He took on the sins of the whole world, past, present and future:

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but so that the world might be saved through Him.” (John 3:16-17 NASB).

And as Oswald Chambers wrote:

“There is nothing in time or eternity more absolutely certain and irrefutable than what Jesus Christ accomplished on the Cross — He made it possible for the entire human race to be brought back into a right-standing relationship with God. He made redemption the foundation of human life; that is, He made a way for every person to have fellowship with God.

The Cross was not something that happened to Jesus — He came to die; the Cross was His purpose in coming. He is “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world”. The incarnation of Christ would have no meaning without the Cross…

… The heart of salvation is the Cross of Christ. The reason salvation is so easy to obtain is that it cost God so much. The Cross was the place where God and sinful man merged with a tremendous collision and where the way to life was opened. But all the cost and pain of the collision was absorbed by the heart of God.”

But of course, all of this is incomplete without the Resurrection. And as they say, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming…”


Photo by cottonbro studio.

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  1. Warwick Marsh 4 April 2023 at 1:49 pm - Reply

    Briilant and revealing commentray about an even more briilant peice of music that remains to this day

    • Kim Beazley 4 April 2023 at 4:04 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Warwick. I really felt inspired writing this one! I hope that readers get as much out of reading it, and listening to the music, as I did preparing it.

      On a lighter note, isn’t it refreshing to find inspiration in an article from the Guardian for once.

  2. Warwick Marsh 4 April 2023 at 1:53 pm - Reply

    Even the Guardian acknowledges that Handels Messiah is the most poular piece of CLassibal music of all time.
    Handel’s masterpiece, Messiah, is one of the incontrovertible masterpieces of the Western canon, a work whose place in the musical life of the nation looks, with the benefit of hindsight, to have been assured since its first performance in 1742. After all, it’s the most single performed piece of classical music, year-on-year, sung, played, and heard by more people in the world than any other; and is there any other artwork that has earned more money for charity than Messiah over the last 300 years? I can’t think of one.

  3. Marcus 16 April 2023 at 8:30 am - Reply

    The best final eight minutes of the Messiah is a performance by what is probably the world’s best small choir, Voces8:


    • Kim Beazley 17 April 2023 at 12:09 pm - Reply

      Ssshhhhhhh! There’s a few articles to go before I get to the Finale. I do like Voces8, and I’ll check out all the available clips when the time comes. Hope you’re enjoying this series as a whole.

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